The Pursuit of Happiness

Laura Beaney

October 11th 2017

Elusive, subjective, and a driving-force that navigates everything from our activities to our outlook, the highway to happiness is a universal quest.

Attempts to define, prescribe, codify, quantify, formulate and create a framework for happiness have perplexed the human race for centuries. In reality it’s all we really want and what most of us spend our lives searching for – be that through career progression, meditation, the attainment of a dream home, time spent with loved ones, a sip of our preferred tea, or an hour sat on the couch of our psychiatrist. Research into what makes us smile is widespread and ongoing. Social scientists attribute it to genetics, circumstances and moral values, while economists and psychologists seek to quantify and comprehend it through data. Indeed the United Nations, rank the happiness of entire countries through their annual human development index that takes into consideration factors like income, life expectancy and education. There’s a link that’s commonly drawn between cash flow and contentment, but as children our elders warn us that money can never attain it. In the developed world we have more than the previous generations could have ever imagined yet self-help books, Xanax and psychiatry sessions are some of our defining pastimes. The story of Mo Gawdat typifies this sentiment. Despite his career success and notable wealth, he was admittedly profusely unhappy, his state-of-mind fuelled an obsession with finding a precise formula for happiness. The chief business officer at Google’s [X], a select team that comprise Google’s futuristic dream factory, used this engineer’s mind to create an algorithm based on an understanding of how the brain processes joy and sadness, creating his equation for permanent happiness.

In the past, happiness was not quantified or considered to be a specific destination that could be reached. And with work, family, community and religious duties typically filling the day, there was little time to ponder personal fulfilment. Today we have greater financial wealth, more disposable income, rights for women and racial equality have vastly improved, life expectancies have increased and access to education, healthcare, and global travel continue to expand. Appreciating these advancements alone we might expect that citizens of developed countries are happier than those of less prosperous nations, but Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at the University of Southern California, argues that this is not the case. Known as the Easterlin paradox, his research during the Seventies claimed that growing national wealth is not always inline with growing national happiness and that largely, affluent countries are not necessarily happier than their poorer counterparts. Easterlin’s theory continues to be contested, examined, and redefined by economists and intellectuals.

When you begin to tie happiness to the accumulation of objective measures, you will never be happy enough

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD

Another landmark study by researchers at the London School of Economics attributed most human misery to failed relationships and physical and mental illness rather than measurable problems like poverty. These findings pose a problem because, in the Western world, our levels of contentment are often closely linked to our spending habits. There are entire industries, from music festivals to pharmaceuticals, built upon this. “Happiness can never be a destination,” advises Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, a professor and chair of the Counselling, Adult and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University. “When you begin to tie happiness to the accumulation of objective measures, you will never be happy enough.” Consider the purchase of a new sports car as an example: you save for it, and imagine a certain return of pleasure once you finally own it. You buy it, but the next week, that brand new vehicle yields less shine, and does nothing more than last year’s model would – takes you from A-to-B.

The experience of the purchase was the thrill, but the object remains an object. Indeed, recent spending trends have seen experience-driven purchases take precedence over luxury goods, but is the end result more enriching? “I’ve worked hard to build my own brand after breaking away from the family business where I had a guaranteed support network,” says luxury accessories designer, Sofia Al Asfoor, who believes her healthy lifestyle choices were critical to her emotional wellbeing during this challenging phase. “When you’re under pressure you can easily fall into negative patterns. For me, all forms of exercise, spending time in natural environments and eating well have kept me balanced. While enhancing your personal style can offer a certain sense of pleasure, material things cannot contribute to a better you.”

Certain spends cannot easily be categorised, but all share a commonality in that they are driven by how they make us ‘feel’. One of Al Asfoor’s unforgettable moments of euphoria came as sunrise drenched the top of a mountain in Bali, a space she’d reached after a five-hour hike under the stars. “Some experiences affect us on multiple levels and increase the personal value of the time, money, or resources invested in them,” says Degges-White. “The ‘happiness industry’ is the result of our belief that we are masters of our lives and that we should be able to hold control over our emotions and states of being. Unfortunately, anything that truly brings lasting contentment or authentic gratitude is more than likely not a thing, but an experience.”